Posts Tagged ‘Tories do something sinister’

Given the general grim dismalness of our national and cultural life in the UK at present (although, glimmers of light occasionally occur: Don’t Scare The Hare is being shunted to a less embarrassing timeslot and So You Think You Can Dance has been axed), you have to find something to do in order to stay sane. One thing I do – I can’t say I actually enjoy it, but I think it’s useful and good for me in a self-mortificatory sort of way – is to read my landlady’s copy of the Daily Mail and try to figure out how they can possibly justify printing some of the headlines that they do.

I mean, it is just possible the whole newspaper is some sort of situationist prank (in rather poor taste, admittedly) and no-one involved seriously means a word they say. Or possibly it’s actually published in a parallel dimension where current affairs are very vaguely similar, and it ends up in our papershops as a result of some sort of distributory cock-up. But I’m going to take a leap of faith and stick with my initial suspicion that it really is meant to be a newspaper.

Anyway, let’s look at today’s headline: ‘The day the British people stood up for democracy’. For the benefit of foreign readers: this is a reference to the result of Thursday’s referendum on whether the UK should change its electoral system, replacing the current first-past-the-post system with one incorporating a transferrable vote system referred to as AV. For what it’s worth, the vote came down 2-to-1 in favour of keeping the existing system.

It’s a bit late to be discussing the merits of the different systems on offer, as this result effectively means that any chances of electoral reform are gone for at least a generation. Personally I was all for AV, for a number of reasons. It remedied the main problem with FPTP system, which – as I remember discussing with the political philosopher Dr Steve Champlin of Hull University, nearly 20 years ago – can return a victor who only receives a fraction of the vote. It also avoided the main objection I can see to full Proportional Representation, which is that it breaks the direct link between constituency and MP.

And, more importantly, AV promoted consensus politics in a number of ways – by encouraging candidates to appeal to broad base in order to attract preferential votes, and by increasing the possibility of future coalition governments, which by their very nature lead to all the nutters of the parties involved neutralising each other.

On Planet Mail, of course, this translates as ‘an attack on the politics of conviction’. ‘Conviction’ presumably being ‘the Right’. The current Tory meat shields coalition partners, the Lib Dems, took a tremendous pounding in the council elections that were also held on Thursday, which is widely being interpeted as a punishment delivered by an electorate which feels betrayed.

Why do they feel betrayed by a party and a leader which is actually in government for the first time in over half a century? Because to do it they got into bed with the Tories. ‘Last time I vote Lib Dem,’ was a sentiment I heard from more than one friend, when the news of the coalition negotiations broke following last year’s general election. Most people who take an interest in these things feel the Lib Dems and Labour have – or had – much more in common than either party has with the Tories. They’re both, broadly speaking, centre-left progressive parties. I recall, ten years ago, informal arrangements being made between Lib Dems in the north and Labour supporters in the south to trade votes in order to keep Tory MPs out.

This is the reason why the Mail and the rest of the chorus of Tory cheerleaders were so relentlessly and viciously hostile to the idea of AV: they were well aware the Tories would suffer more than either of the other parties if AV were introduced, with Labour preferences going to the Lib Dems and vice versa. The size of the combined centre-left block would be better reflected under AV.

According to the Mail, of course, this system would be undemocratic, which is why the British people stood up for democracy when they rejected it. It is always easiest to express yourself agreeably when you yourself define all the words you’re planning use, of course. Now all the dust has settled and the post-mortems are underway, it’s easy to talk about the half-truths and outright lies peddled by both sides, because it doesn’t really mean anything. However, I would beg your indulgence for a moment.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with opposing a change to the voting system simply on pragmatic grounds (because you’ll get fewer votes under it), as long as you’re honest about it. The No lobby produced a colossal quantity of – how can I put this delicately? – bollocks in an attempt to justify their opposition to AV. Apparently, it was unfair. It was overly complicated. It was un-British.

Jawdroppingly specious and mendacious bullshit in action.

Well, I went to a British university where a version of AV was used in student elections, and we all coped with it, and it didn’t strike us as being any more unfair than FPTP. Most tellingly of all, though, a version of AV – this unfair, overcomplex, unpatriotic system most Tories objected so vehemently to – is the system used by the Tories themselves to choose their own leader.

Let us pause and consider this for a moment.

And then a moment more.

Specious political bullshit and an insult to the intelligence and integrity of the British people, of course, and there’s no real point in complaining about it. Partly this is because of the enormous media bias in favour of the Right, which I’m certain remains the key impediment to any meaningful political change and social improvement in the UK.

But also – well, with the benefit of hindsight I think this could have been predicted, couldn’t it? Anyone involved in this government was going to be unpopular, particularly the Lib Dems, whose particular grail this was. With the Lib Dems cruising for a bruising and the big batteries of the Mail, the Express, and the Telegraph (amongst others) supporting the Tory cause the contest was never going to be a fair one.

Having said that, it’s difficult to conceive of a plausible chain of events that could ever lead to a win for the AV camp. The Tories would never put an AV referendum in their manifesto for all the reasons I’ve mentioned: it would be turkeys voting for Christmas. As the other major party, Labour is also generally suspicious of voting reform and would also be unlikely to make one an election pledge. Only the Lib Dems want a referendum, and this one only came about as a result of the hung parliament in last year’s general election. Hung parliaments are incredibly rare.

Even if, by some fluke, another one comes along at the next election, the Lib Dems will be stuck with the same problems as they had this time: the referendum inevitably being treated as a verdict on a party very likely suffering from the slump in popularity experienced by anyone in government, and the weight of the Tory press going all-out against them.

So, realistically, we are stuck with FPTP as our national electoral system, very likely in perpetuity. This isn’t really much of an insight, but even so – one has to feel somewhat sorry for the Lib Dems. For their naivety, mostly. One wonders how they will process the realisation that the only times they will be able to force a referendum will be the ones when they are least likely to win one. It sounds rather more like an ugly Catch-22 than democracy to me.

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An identity crisis seems to be looming in Number 10. I’ve already commented on David Cameron’s startling adoption of quasi-Marxist rhetoric, so his attempt to morph into a combination of Lord Kitchener (‘Your country needs you’), and Winston Churchill (‘We must come together in the interests of our nation!’) during his speech the other day shouldn’t really have been surprising.

Increasingly, though, Dave’s starting to remind me of Jim, the leading character of the wonderful TV series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. Jim was a nice if somewhat vague chap who found himself in charge of the country despite never actually having won a general election. Once ensconced in Downing Street he came up with what he called his Grand Design, a plan to revolutionise the country which he loved, but nobody else could summon up any enthusiasm for. Eventually it was quietly dropped – it’ll be interesting to see if the Big Society goes the same way. The clincher for me in the Dave-as-Jim thing is that, crucially given what Cameron has in store for us in terms of cuts, Jim’s surname was Hacker.

I got grumbled at on Facebook recently for complaining that the Tories have sounded surprisingly reasonable at their conference, on the grounds that they haven’t. But really – being reasonable? No. Sounding reasonable? Yes, I think so. Dave’s Marxist moment was one example, while in his big speech he said, effectively, that it’s not fair for the state to offer a blank cheque of support to people who refuse to work if they’re actually able to – benefits should not be unlimited.

Well, even as somebody who spent quite a long time signing on while having no real intention of getting a job (in my defence I should point out I haven’t claimed any kind of benefit in over eleven years, even during a five-month period out of work not long ago), I can see that on face value that seems absolutely reasonable. No mature person could truly justify that sort of premeditated sponging and scrounging, could they? (Then again I would say the same thing about music and movie piracy, and I’m fully aware I’m in the minority about that.) But as with the removal of universal child benefit it’s when you get down into the details of the policy and its ramifications that things start to look a bit less clear-cut.

Cameron seems to want to draw a line between people on low incomes – oh, damn it, I’m just going to write ‘poor people’ from now on, for all that it sounds immensely patronising – who deserve to receive state benefits, and poor people who don’t. As a result he conjures an image of the undeserving poor, sunk in moral turpitude, set on effectively stealing from harder-working types. It’s enough to make the average Daily Mail reader quake. How many of these people does he think actually exist?

I’m reminded of George Orwell’s comments on the mythical ‘tramp monster’ from Chapter 36 of Down and Out in Paris and London:

In childhood we have been taught that tramps are blackguards, and consequently there exists in our minds a sort of ideal or typical tramp–a repulsive, rather dangerous creature, who would die rather than work or wash, and wants nothing but to beg, drink, and rob hen-houses… This tramp-monster is no truer to life than the sinister Chinaman of the magazine stories, but he is very hard to get rid of. The very word ‘tramp’ evokes his image.
And the belief in him obscures the real questions of vagrancy. To take a fundamental question about vagrancy: Why do tramps exist at all? It is a curious thing, but very few people know what makes a tramp take to the road. And, because of the belief in the tramp-monster, the most fantastic reasons are suggested.

You could substitute ‘poor person’ for ‘tramp’ and ‘poverty’ for ‘vagrancy’ in there and I suspect you’d have a pretty good summary of attitudes to poverty amongst some Britons today, except that poverty has a more obviously economic basis (though not much more).

I’m not saying there are no fraudulent recipients of state benefit in this country. You could probably argue that I used to be one (many years ago). If Cameron was just announcing the Coalition will be zero-tolerant when it comes to benefit fraud, I’d have to say that was unobjectionable. (Then again it would’ve been quite fatuous, as no serious politician would hold any other position.) The trouble is, I don’t think that’s quite what he’s on about. The Tories are talking about setting benefit caps, regardless of the claimant’s situation, so that you’ll always be better off working than claiming dole.

So, presumably this is a mechanism to try and compel people into finding jobs. This seems to be predicated upon the belief that significant numbers of benefits claimants are, for want of a better expression, work-shy. For a party which claims to be optimistic about the nation it currently leads, that seems to be a rather negative view of human nature, amongst the poor at least. It also begs the question of what would happen should there not be enough jobs to go around.

There is also the issue of how this stacks up with the issue of child benefit. Cameron’s (easy) target is the unemployed couple who have eight children and rake in huge quantities of state benefit as a result of their enviable fertility (once again, this kind of example plays very well on the front of the Mail but I’d love to know how many there really are). It’s very difficult to argue with his assertion that the state shouldn’t subsidise this sort of lifestyle, until you realise that the consequence of such a subsidy being withdrawn is probably going to be child poverty.

So, presumably, in Dave’s Big Society the value we attach to children, even new-born babies, depends entirely on who their parents are. I don’t know about you, but no matter how lazy and lacking in self-respect a couple are, I still don’t think their kids deserve to suffer as a result. Not content with channelling the spirits of Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, and Jim Hacker, Dave seems to be going for the big one and imagining himself to be Jehovah circa the Book of Exodus, ‘punishing the children for the sin of the fathers .‘

As long as you give people the right to have as many children as they want, there’s always the potential for some couples to plop ‘em out relentlessly regardless of their ability to support themselves. As long as you provide the right to a dole of any kind, there will always be people who claim it frivolously. It’s part of the price you pay for living in a modern and humane society. Should you try and minimise that price? Of course. Are there things that can be done to reduce it? Yes. But lazy generalisations about a social group completely alien to you, not to mention the apparent writing off of actual human lives as necessary wastage? If this is Dave’s Big Society I’m glad I can’t quite grasp his drift.

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One of the things I’m often asked when people stop me in the street is ‘Buy a Big Issue, sir?‘ or ‘Excuse me, do you know where The Chequers is?‘ – but such are the wages of being deservedly obscure and lacking in any sort of public profile. These sorts of questions reflect fairly accurately the level of national discourse in the UK, but at least my responses – typically ‘No thanks’ and ‘It’s over there where the chequered sign is, funnily enough’ – are seldom subjected to the forensic scrutiny properly famous people have to put up with when they say something.
Opinion seems to be divided over whether Gideon ‘George’ Osbourne’s announcement that Child Benefit would be withdrawn for families earning over a certain amount will be remembered as a bold and visionary political masterstroke or just a posh bloke shooting his mouth off on the telly with disastrous results. It would, as Mr Wilde said, take a heart of stone not to laugh at the resulting mess. As a lefty in the UK you get little enough chance for pleasure at the moment so watching the Tories cock things up so spectacularly is particularly heart-warming. (Our current crop of right-wingers are much less entertaining than the raving lunatics rampaging around the USA, but having said that should the likes of Palin, Angle and O’Donnell actually get their hands on power this will probably change from ‘ho, ho, aren’t Americans wacky’ material to an international disaster fairly rapidly.)

Anyway much of the fuss about Gideon’s plan to chop the benefit comes from it not seemingly especially well-thought-out in its particulars – the cut-off point is if either parent earns more than about £40,000 per year – so a family where one person stays at home and the other makes £50,000 wouldn’t be eligible, while one where both work and make around £35,000 would. That is, obviously, silly.

A lot of the rest of the fuss seems to be due to the political angles involved, and here at least I’m inclined to say the Tories have been clever, as the scheme to some degree gives both barrels to their own supporters. This is clever, honest, as it means that from now whenever anyone complains about the magnitude of the cuts that we’ll be hearing about very soon, Chinless Dave will be able to point to rich people who aren’t getting their Child Benefit and say ‘look, we’re suffering too’.

But the really startling thing about this is some of the language Cameron’s coming out with, particularly (with respect to taxation) ‘Broader shoulders should bear more of the load‘, or words to that effect. Now, I admit it’s not exactly ‘From each according to his ability,’ but it’s got the same kind of ring about it, hasn’t it? It’s not the first time a Tory leader has started paraphrasing a socialist, but this is a bit more specific than John Major reciting bits of George Orwell that somebody waved under his nose. I think you could argue fairly persuasively that by continuing to tax high-earners but channelling the money towards the less well-off the Coalition have actually embarked upon the redistribution of wealth, albeit in a fairly small way.

Stuff to gladden the heart of lefties, surely? Well, maybe – I’m not so sure, as you can probably tell. If they are currently feeling redistributive then it’s at the expense of the concept of Universal Benefits (not sure why I’m capitalising that, but whatever). Removing one of the Universals makes sound political sense for the reasons outlined above, but it is an axe-blow to the principle that everyone has equal rights to certain things in British society – the welfare system is surely losing its purely ethical basis and becoming much more of an economic undertaking, with benefit levels and provision subject to revision much like the rest of economic policy. No doubt similar plans for the NHS and other elements of the welfare state are waiting in the wings.

This looks to me very much like the Tories using the current ‘national crisis’ (hmm, you want to see a country properly in crisis, boys, check out somewhere like Kyrgyzstan) as a cover for them to get ideological on our asses – speaking gravely about hard decisions needing to be taken and belts to be tightened while struggling to contain the urge to start rubbing their hands and giggling. I’m all for British society to become a bit more sensibly organised, with everything shared out in a slightly fairer fashion, but not if this is just camouflage to allow the Tories to start slipping in the thin end of the wedge. It’ll be interesting to see exactly how IDS’s miracle reorganisation of the benefits system will actually function – if he ever gets around to explaining it.

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